“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their…well, Inspirations and Influences. The cool thing is that the writers are given free rein so they can go wild and write about anything they want. It can be about their new book, series or about their career as a whole.
Our guest today is Django Wexler, debut author of the military fantasy novel The Thousand Names (which, spoiler alert, Thea highly enjoyed and will be reviewing later today). For his post, Django is taking inspiration from a Napoleonic phrase: March to the Sound of the Guns! (a phrase for a subordinate commander to march his troops towards the sound of cannons to get in on the battle). That is, Django is talking to us about one of his biggest pet peeves (and one of OUR biggest as well), that dreaded waiting period in which nothing is happening in a fantasy novel.
Please give a crisp salute to Django, everyone!
March!: Maintaining Forward Momentum
Or, Things Should Happen In Books
It may be unpopular, but I would like to express the following controversial opinion: I think that things should happen in books.
Okay, so it’s not that controversial. Obviously, you say, things should happen in books. But I would wager that anyone who reads widely has had the experience of picking up a book and getting bored because nothing was going on. If we all know that things should happen, why do they keep not happening?
In my experience, there are two primary ways in which things fail to happen. The first has to do with excessive back-story, exposition, or description, and the second is a matter of character investment. They’re quite different problems with the same symptom—a bored sense of detachment on the part of the reader.
In the first case, literally nothing is happening in the book. This can be because the author has decided we need to know every detail of a character’s genealogy or a world’s mythic history before we can get started, or because he or she is obsessed with describing every aspect of the architecture. It can be simply a matter of the writer being in love with the sound of their prose, or a case of the magic system or science-fictional conceit being so complicated that a primer and glossary are required to make sense of the terminology. Whatever the reason, the result is reams of pages where no action takes place.
Sometimes, the answer is simple. You (that is, the author or the editor) need to pull out the surgeon’s hacksaw and get to work. This is one of those processes that’s painful at the time, but once it’s over and the shock has faded you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. As best I can tell, every writer goes through it—I certainly did. The Thousand Names was originally about 30,000 words (75 pages or so) longer than it ended up in the final draft, and while some of the stuff I cut may turn up elsewhere, a lot of it was flat-out unnecessary and won’t be missed. (Though it took a few phone calls with my editor before I was ready to admit it!)
At other times, the problem isn’t in the description or the exposition per se, but rather in where these passages are deployed in the structure of the novel. If the book involves a complicated magic system, we probably need to know about it at some point (at least as much as the characters do), and if the hero’s genealogy really is important to the story you’re probably going to need to communicate it to the reader. But it is almost never a good idea to put that sort of thing up front, as a giant wad of indigestible material that the reader needs to chew through to get to the tasty part of the book.
In general, readers will be happy to absorb reams of background material, if you give them a reason to care about it. That means that the proper place for this kind of exposition isn’t before something happens that involves it, but afterward, once the reader has a character that they care about who needs to know it. So start with the cool action scene or by establishing a character, so that by the time the protagonist says, “Wait, he can’t be my father!” we’re ready to hear how the genealogy works out.
A time-honored technique is to include a character who doesn’t know everything already, so that one of the other characters can explain things as they go along. When used well, this is a deft way of slipping information in that doesn’t feel boring. In The Thousand Names, I use this for two important purposes. First, since the main characters start the book unaware that magic is real, I get the chance to enlighten the readers on the true nature of things as we go along. Second, when Winter inherits command of a company of raw recruits, it provides an opportunity for some unobtrusive lessons on weapons and tactics, so the reader knows what to expect when the shooting starts.
However, keep in mind this is not a universal solution! Two people we don’t care about talking about something is just as boring as the author telling us about it directly, and in the worst cases can break suspension of disbelief by being too convenient. (“As you know, Bob, we both live in the United States of America, the capital of which is Washington, D.C….”)
The second case of “things not happening in books” is more complicated. You can usually diagnose this one by trying to explain the plot to someone—if it comes out sounding like, “This guy met this girl, and then some other stuff went on,” you’re dealing with this problem. In this case, it’s not that nothing is literally happening—the text describes events that occur—but rather that we don’t care.
This is a more subtle difficulty, because it has a lot to do with the context. Suppose I wrote a chapter in which our protagonist, Bob, gets out of bed, brushes his teeth, realizes he’s out of milk, and drives to the store to buy some.
In some contexts, this could be perfectly legitimate action. If the book is about the decaying relationship between Bob and his wife, say, the details of his morning might be relevant, even gripping. The same might be true if we know from previous events that there’s a dead body in Bob’s trunk, so that when he goes to put the groceries away he’s going to get a nasty shock.
But if the story is about Bob’s career as an intergalactic fighter pilot, the “morning errands” is not something the readers care about. As a result, they might complain that nothing happens—not literally nothing, but nothing of importance, however importance is defined in the context of the book.
As with the first variety of problem, sometimes the answer is to simply cut, cut, cut. Just snip out Bob’s morning errands entirely, and the book will ultimately be the stronger for it. Again, painful but necessary.
Sometimes, though, the problem is a little bit deeper—the author thinks the readers should care, but they don’t. This can be a matter of structure, similar to the above. While we have a tendency to be in sympathy with the viewpoint character, it’s not automatic, and it takes a little bit of time to build up. If we will eventually care about Bob and his groceries, but don’t yet, the beginning of the book is not the time for the morning-errands scene. Multiple points of view can also present a problem; if there are too many points of view, the readers may not care about some or all of them. Or the character may simply be poorly drawn; a mess of contradictory traits that feels like a ball of mush, doing whatever furthers the plot or a cardboard cutout embodying some trope or cliché.
All writing advice is tentative, and all writing rules are made to broken. But “things should happen in books” is pretty good advice, I think, for the majority of writers. If your readers come back to you complaining that nothing happens in your book, something is probably wrong, and the first step to finding out what usually begins with asking yourself whether anything does happen, and whether you’ve given the audience any reason to care.
About The Book:
Enter an epic fantasy world that echoes with the thunder of muskets and the clang of steel—but where the real battle is against a subtle and sinister magic….
Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, commander of one of the Vordanai empire’s colonial garrisons, was resigned to serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost. But that was before a rebellion upended his life. And once the powder smoke settled, he was left in charge of a demoralized force clinging tenuously to a small fortress at the edge of the desert.
To flee from her past, Winter Ihernglass masqueraded as a man and enlisted as a ranker in the Vordanai Colonials, hoping only to avoid notice. But when chance sees her promoted to command, she must win the hearts of her men and lead them into battle against impossible odds.
The fates of both these soldiers and all the men they lead depend on the newly arrived Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, who has been sent by the ailing king to restore order. His military genius seems to know no bounds, and under his command, Marcus and Winter can feel the tide turning. But their allegiance will be tested as they begin to suspect that the enigmatic Janus’s ambitions extend beyond the battlefield and into the realm of the supernatural—a realm with the power to ignite a meteoric rise, reshape the known world, and change the lives of everyone in its path.
Check out the rest of Django Wexler’s blog tour for the inside scoop on
The Thousand Names, Book One of The Shadow Campaigns!
About the Author:
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.
We have ONE copy of The Thousand Names up for grabs! The contest is open to ALL and will run until Sunday, July 14 at 12:01am. To enter, use the form below. Good luck!